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NicolЄ Paganini. (Genua, 1782 - Nice, 1840)

а The history of the modern virtuoso performer begins with NicolЄ Paganini, who remains a symbol of his profession. He was the son of Antonio Paganini, a cargo handler and shipping clerk who played the mandolin and violin well, and his music-loving wife. Antonio began teaching NicolЄ to play the mandolin at the age of five and the violin two years later. He made his son practise from morning till night, and when NicolЄ’s concentration faltered his father would deprive him of food. The boy was sustained by his gentle and deeply religious mother. Before long he had outgrown his father’s teaching and become the pupil of a theatre orchestra violinist. а He was performing in public by the age of ten, and at 13 he was taken to Parma to study with the famous Alessandro Rolla, who, however, dismissed the boy, telling him that he already knew everything that he (Rolla) could have taught him. Although he continued to study composition and learned various tricks of the fiddler’s trade from older violinists, Paganini’s way of playing seems to have been original virtually from the start. From 1801 to 1809 he made his base in the town of Lucca, where he played, taught, composed and conducted. (It is generally believed that he was for a time the lover of Princess Elisa Baciocchi, Napoleon’s sister and Lucca’s ruler.) а From 1809 to 1827 he wandered up and down the Italian peninsula, mesmerizing audiences everywhere with his virtuosity, until finally, at the age of 45, he made up his mind to give concerts abroad. The following five years of his career have no parallel in music history: more than a tour, he made a triumphal progress across Europe - a conquest not only of the mass public but also of the most celebrated musicians, who came away from his performances overwhelmed, confused and inspired.

а In Vienna, members of his audiences took their seats two hours before the performances were to begin, to avoid any risk of losing their places. In Leipzig, the famed piano pedagogue Friedrich Wieck, father of Clara Schumann, noted in his diary: «Never has an artist even been born who is as great and incomparable as he in so many genres. » In Berlin, Mendelssohn wrote to his friend, the pianist Ignaz Moscheles: «His never-erring execution is beyond conception. You ask too much if you expect me to give a description of his playing. It would take up the whole letter; for he is so original, so unique, that it would require an exhaustive analysis to convey an impression of his style. »

а The young Chopin heard Paganini in Warsaw in 1829 and felt compelled to commemorate the event by writing a short piece, Souvenir de Paganini. The 19-year-old Robert Schumann, then an unhappy law student in Heidelberg, travelled to Frankfurt to hear Paganini and decided, partly as a result of that experience, to dedicate himself wholly to music. He later transcribed for piano 12 of Paganini’s Caprices and named a section of Carnaval - one of his masterpieces for piano solo - after the violinist.

а Even the normally unflappable Goethe was disconcerted by Paganini: «I lack a base for this column of sunbeams and clouds», he said. «I heard something simply meteoric and was unable to understand it. » Rossini, Donizetti, Liszt, Auber, Heine, De Musset, Delacroix, George Sand and many other famed practitioners of the arts attended Paganini’s Paris dщbut in 1831, and were dazzled by him. In London, where he became the darling of the court and the public, the Times critic, in the midst of describing Paganini’s playing, felt obliged to caution his readers: «You may not believe half of what I am telling you, and I am not telling you half of what there is to be told. »

а Legends sprang up about Paganini’s having learned to play the violin during long years in prison (for having murdered another lover of one of his mistresses), and about a mysterious pact with the devil - which, according to some, accounted for his seemingly flawless playing. For a while Paganini encouraged and ably manipulated these absurd tales, and by the time he tired of and denied them, they had taken root in the public consciousness.

а In the years of his greatest success he was attacked for miserliness, but the facts belie this calumny: his frequent performances for charity, his insistence on taking full financial and human responsibility for the son he had had by one of his mistresses, and his gift of 20, 000 francs to the little-appreciated Berlioz for the composition of Harold in Italy (which Paganini had commissioned but not appreciated at first) are but a few of many examples of extreme generosity on his part. By his 50th year, Paganini’s health had begun to decline seriously (he suffered from a respiratory disease), and so had his fortunes.

а He settled in Parma, where he conducted the court orchestra of the Grand Duchess Marie Louise, then he invested his money in a Paris gambling casino, which failed. He died in Nice, but as he had refused the sacraments of the Church, a five-year squabble over his burial ensued. Today, Paganini is recognized as a strange but seminal influence in 19th-century music and the father of modern violin playing.

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